Crystal Lucas has seen first-hand the transformation of Jerry Burton.
Lucas played softball for Burton at Columbus East in the 1990s and has been an assistant coach under him for the past seven years at Jennings County and Columbus North. Now, Burton’s 23-year coaching career is drawing to a close, with his announced retirement at the end of the season.
“It’s been totally different,” Lucas said. “Back when I played, Jerry was real rough, and he demanded a lot. He was very stern, and over the years, with the way kids have changed, he’s become more lenient, but he still expects hard work and determination out of all of his kids.”
That hard work and determination from players at East, Jennings and North has carried Burton to eight sectional and two regional titles and 365 wins heading into this week’s Columbus North Sectional at Lincoln Park.
“There’s a lot of good moments,” said Burton, who was honored prior to Saturday’s regular-season finale against Terre Haute South. “I love coaching. I love the competitiveness. More than anything, I love what the kids have turned out to be. That’s what’s most important — how they’ve turned out and who they’ve become as young ladies.”
Lucas graduated from East in 1996. Her sister, Dena Johnson, graduated from East in 2000. Lucas’ niece, Shelby Lucas, graduated from North last year, and her daughter, Kelsay, is a junior on this year’s Bull Dogs squad.
“He was definitely different back when I played,” Johnson said. “He was harder on us girls when he first started coaching to what he is now. But he’s learned through the years how to deal more with girls than he used to.
“He was always a great guy,” she said. “Me and Jerry had our ups and downs, but now as an adult, I respect him a lot more than I did as a teenager.”
Keisha Loweth, who led the Olympians to three consecutive sectional titles from 2002-04 and graduated from in 2005, said Burton gave his players a lot of leeway.
“I played with him outside of high school, too, in travel ball, so I knew what to expect going into high school,” Loweth said. “I liked playing for him. He was the coach, but he let us control what we did and worked with us that way.
“There were a few times he wanted us to work on hitting the ball in certain spots, and there are some games, he would stand over there, and we would drill and drill and drill, and he would get on us,” she said. “But in the end, he kind of let us do whatever, which actually made us better players because we had to learn
Burton, who started the East program in 1991, left after the 2006 season to resume his schooling. He resurfaced at Jennings County in 2008 and led the Panthers to a sectional title in his first of two years there.
Emily Mull, who played for Burton as a freshman and sophomore and graduated from Jennings County in 2011, said she and her teammates have some good memories.
“There was one time that we weren’t focused in the game, and we had the whole dugout covered with sunflower seeds,” Mull said. “He got on to all of us, and I remember him yelling at us, saying he was going to make us all get a toothbrush and scrub the dugout with toothbrushes, sweeping all the sunflower seeds out.
“I know another time, we ended up losing a game, and he made us go back to the outfield and run laps after the game,” she said. “There were good games and bad games, but we can sit back and talk about them, and I still catch up with him now.”
Burton, who left Jennings for North before the 2010 season, also works 35 hours a week at Renner Ford/Honda.
“The biggest thing with me, and has been the last several years, is that I’ve always made my job fit around softball,” Burton said. “It’s hard to find a good job where you can get off at 3 and never work Saturdays, so I’ve always had jobs like that. Otherwise, you can’t coach. There’s no option.
“So it’s been tough the last few years, and I’ve kept going and kept going,” he said. “I finally decided that I needed to put my finances first, ahead of the coaching.”
The Bull Dogs, who drew a first-round bye in the sectional and play Shelbyville around 7:30 p.m. Thursday, are 16-10 this season. North has only four seniors, meaning most of this year’s squad will be playing for a new coach next season.
“I’m happy for Jerry that he’s going to go and do what he needs to do for himself,” Kelsay Lucas said. “It will be a lot different because he’s been my coach for the past three years, but I’m prepared for whatever the next coach brings for us.”